Vermithrax Pejorative – Part 3
Despite all the issues the crew met with the full-size models, the biggest challenge for Dragonslayer would be animation. “We knew the dragon had a lot more importance to this film than some of the incidental things that appeared in only a few shots in Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back,” Johnson said. “The dragon had to be presented in a way that the audience would be absolutely stunned.” Since the beginning, Barwood and Robbins were convinced that the technique that should be used was dimensional animation.
The ILM crew was at first uncertain in finding a way to convert the design into a convincing small scale animation puppet. Tippett said: “the design was so peculiar that it was very difficult to touch — especially the way the wings folded and covered up a lot of the body. As a practical stop-motion puppet, it was a very difficult hands-on sort of thing. That was one of the first reasons we started thinking we’d have to come up with another way of articulating this thing. And we figured that there must be a way of adapting motion control equipment that was available at this facility to plug into a pretty standard stop-motion puppet.”
“One of the things I’d thought of,” Muren recalled, “was trying to do it with muppets, where you have a rod puppet sort of thing — shot bluescreen but done live. That wouldn’t have worked either because you would have had five guys trying to make this thing look alive. They [could never] have synched up.” This technique would be experimented with a decade later, by Boss films (who would coin the label ‘Mo-Motion’) to animate the Dog Alien rod puppet in Alien³. The ILM crew, however, quickly abandoned the idea.
Stuart Ziff laid the foundation of an innovative animation technique. Indeed, the dragon would be a rod puppet — but connected to a puppeteering system. “It was obvious that the puppet was just too small to put any motors inside [of it]. Not knowing exactly how we wanted it to move, we came up with the idea that whatever it would be would connect externally. Since the dragon would usually be photographed in the dark, we would conceal rods coming up to the feet.”
Ziff set to work on a motion control mechanism for the miniature dragon. A new technique would also allow the crew to stray from the usual ‘staccato’ effect of stop-motion: “what we all wanted was to break away from the stereotypical stop-motion look,” said Tippett, “which is not only an artifact of a succession of still photographs, but a simplified geometry in the blocking out of the shots that some animators are forced to do.”
In six months’ time, Ziff elaborated an innovative motion control mechanism to animate Vermithrax. No one among the crew at the time knew what the result of this new motion control technique would look like. Everyone was ready for a possible failure of the new experimental method — and was prepared to fall back onto stop-motion animation. Barwood commented: “we had to spend months constructing the dragon mover, and we had to spend more months learning to use it. We were all chewing our nails by the time we started getting our first walker shots [January 1981].” The results, ultimately, were beyond anyone’s expectations. “Eventually, though, we added some,” he continues, “because it became obvious that they were great.”
The motion control mechanism consisted of several ‘units’ — each comprising of a rod system. They were attached to a central coordinator piece. Each unit was driven by three stepper motors — which, combined with a series of mechanisms, allowed the unit and its rods to move in all three dimensions. Six units controlled the dragon’s movements: one for each limb, one for the dragon’s body and one for its head and neck.
This entire system was installed onto a motion control cart, which was in turn mounted on a eight-feet track. There was a total of 19 stop-motion motors, 16 of which could be under motion control at any given time. When mounted on this system, the dragon puppet would be effectively suspended in mid-air while performing.
Ziff built the motion control system so that it could be dismantled and reconfigured in different configurations, depending on the requirements of a shot. The internal frame of the dragon puppets — a metallic armature — featured threaded holes to connect to the puppeteering rods. In turn, the rods were attached to the motion units via a combination of other rods and clamps. This expedient provided additional flexibility and prevented the rods from colliding with each other while puppeteering the model. The motion control system was able to move the dragon in real-time speeds, even though the crew never needed such a function (Ziff simply wanted the most available options as possible).
Using the knowledge acquired by Jon Berg and Doug Beswick during the production of The Empire Strikes Back, Tom St. Amand built the armatures. Hinges and swivels enabled Phil Tippett to lock off certain axes of movement. “If the dragon had to walk in a straight line,” St. Amand said, “obviously you wouldn’t want the legs to go cattywampus out. So with these you could lock off the joints which would make the legs do that.” Each joint was based on a simple axis swivel type of movement, barring the neck and tail — which were segmented with ball-and-socket joints.
Two three-feet long armatures for the ‘walking’ dragon (with a wingspan of six feet) were made, in the possibility of needing both working at the same time. Ultimately, the second armature served only as a prototype for animation and skin covering tests. Two four-inch puppets of Galen were also built for the shots that saw both the dragon and the warrior onscreen. Chris Walas preliminarily sculpted the walking dragon, with finishing touches by Phil Tippett; after moulding by the former, the latter would then finalize the fabrication.
Vermithrax’s movements were largely based on 16mm footage of lizards. The very first plan was to animate the head and neck conventionally — using stop-motion — whereas the rest of the body would employ the new technique. Dennis Muren explained: “we couldn’t figure out how to motorize the neck and head without doing everything bluescreen, and we didn’t want to do everything bluescreen. So the first shot Phil tried was when the mother walks out and looks at the baby dragon. Doing everything he could to focus attention on the head and neck — which is the only part that was just stop-motion — it still showed up as looking different from the rest of the puppet. In fact, it was perhaps more objectionable than if the whole puppet had been stop-motion. And this was the full miniature set, with scrims in there for smoke and all sorts of stuff. It was so complicated that we figured: ‘what’s the point of doing every shot like this when it’s a compromise. What we want to do is motorize that head.’ That was when the decision was made to motorize the head and shoot the stuff bluescreen.'”
As a result, almost all of the 20 walking dragon shots were realized with bluescreen. Once finalized, this new animation process acquired a new name. “I wanted ‘animotion’,” Ziff recalled, “so we could call the animators ‘animotors’. But that one didn’t float at all.” Eventually, this new animation technique began to be called ‘Go-Motion’.
Carson lamented the process of building miniature sets that would have been better on a different scale — had he known from the beginning that bluescreen would be used. Before it was decided to use bluescreen, Carson had built suspended sets. “It was impossible to actually construct a miniature cave,” he said. “It had to be done in layers of facades. And unfortunately, we found in the first couple of shots that it looked like layers of facades.” He added: “that’s where the real problem came — trying to get everything in such a small area. Then it turned out that we ended up bluescreening the dragon in most of the shots. Had we known we were going to take that approach initially, I could have built the sets at a different scale.”
This expedient eased the process of hiding the animating rods, which consisted in either masking them or rotoscoping them with articulate mattes. Generally, only the dragon’s head needed the latter technique. Sometimes, the rods could even be hidden by shadows or even anatomical details of the dragon itself. Setting up the shots proved to be particularly complex. The first step was determining the basic configuration of the mover mechanism. Construction of the attaching rod systems followed. In any case, the configuration had to prevent the rods to obstacle the dragon’s movements or pass in front of its body.
Once the mover was configured with the dragon installed in it, and the shot was aligned, the next step was to set up the tension of the dragon’s joints. This enabled said joints to respond appropriately to the rod movements. The 16 memory tracks were then built manually. “It was complicated,” Ziff said, “because each foot could go up and down, and back and forth, and right and left, but when you had to go in a circular motion — you could only program one track at a time — it was like working an Etch-A-Sketch with one hand and trying to get it to look circular. That was sort of difficult, but Phil mastered it.”
For a foot or limb to appear to stop whilst the dragon was moving forward (and thus the rest of the body was continuing to move), the unit controlling the foot would have to be programmed to move backward contemporaneously as the rest moved forward. Such programming was far more articulated than those done for the Star Wars spaceships — which had only one control unit. Tippett essentially learned about programming while filming Dragonslayer. The more complex shots of the ‘walking’ dragon would take up to 1-2, to even 2 and a half weeks to program. Actual shooting instead took up to one hour. Tippett said: “By the time we got most of the very complicated shots out of the way — which took about 2 months — we were able to finish up the final third of the shots in about 2 and a half weeks because we’d gotten so familiar with the system.”
Even with additional animation, once a shot was programmed, filming would proceed smoothly. Tippett recalled: “one of the major attributes of the walking dragon setups was, since these rods were plugged into all the various members, there wasn’t much necessity to gauge things with surface gauges. It was all pre-gauged and locked down. That really helped the continuity and the flow of the animation.”
One of the ‘walking’ shots — when Vermithrax emerges from a tunnel, enraged at the death of its offspring — went through a number of different iterations. Barwood recalled: “Phil had programmed the dragon to come through the cave after the babies are discovered to be dead. And he had him coming through the cave with his head kind of turning from side to side. I think what Phil had in mind was that that was a natural part of its gait, but the effect on screen was that it was paying no attention — like it was just kind of out for a romp in the cave — when really what’s going on in its tiny little dragon mind is: ‘I’m gonna get the sucker who killed my babies!’ It needed to have its face coming right toward you, full of menace. Well, Matthew got a chance to see that played back on video and say, ‘wait a minute. Let’s change that.’ And Phil did. But the rest of the move was still there in the computer memory and could be retained and put into the shot.”
Ken Ralston was assigned the sequences where Vermithrax would fly. Two additional ‘flying’ dragon go-motion puppets were made, with an aluminium skeleton that enabled a wide range of motion. The varying scale of the puppets depended on the requirements of specific shots. They were maneuvered using the spaceship-type motion control techniques used for Star Wars. The ‘flying’ models were slightly smaller in scale than their ‘walking’ counterparts — and were made with ball-and-socket armatures. The larger model featured a gearbox mechanism that enabled its wings to actually flap during flight. This moved only the forearms, and as such it would still be necessary to animate the wing tips by hand.
Ironically enough, Robbins did not want elaborate wing movements. Ralston recalled: “the first flying dragon I shot was not at all the way it ended up in the film. It was a slower, more serpentine thing; and there was much more flapping.” As it turned out, Robbins really wanted a master of the air. He explained: “we hadn’t really had a chance to establish a working relationship with Ken and Phil, and the ideas as to the personality of the dragon were not really in hand. There was a shot of the dragon where I felt it was flapping its wings too much. Ken really thought it was believable, but I just had to decide what I wanted to go with. The shot was, technically, as good as anything that was ever done; but in terms of the dramatic feel of the creature, I wanted something very different. I wanted it to move with very little wing movement. The more it had to flap to stay airborne, the more it sort of seemed to be struggling. Flapping just did not seem to be in tune with its regal nature, and so we dropped that idea from many of the shots.”
The dragon also had to fly fast. “We know it’s going too fast,” Robbins said. “We did some math, and it’s doing around a hundred and fifty miles an hour most of the time. But we make no apology for that fact. believe me, when it seems to be going the right speed, it looks altogether too languorous and relaxed to be able to generate the intensity you need at the end of the movie.” One of the most spectacular shots features the dragon hovering whilst breathing fire on Ulrich, during the climax of the film. “They had shot a plate of Ulrich,” Ralston said. “Then they shot a flame pass with the set all dark. And the flame was moving up and down — it wasn’t just locked off — so I had to match the flame with the head. That was my favourite shot.”
One of the ‘flying’ Vermithrax models was also featured in the only stop-motion sequence of the film — a long shot of the dragon on a rock mountain hide, writhing its wings and glaring down at the protagonists, just before the final battle. Production pressures prevented the ‘walking’ puppet to be used there, so Ralston simply animated one of the ‘flying’ dragons.
Tom St. Amand eventually joined the animation process and actually animated the last ‘flying’ shots at night, after Ralston had set them up during the day. Most of the flying shots were ultimately and relatively easy to film; it was not the case, however, for the shots of the dragon falling out of the sky, covered in smoke. On stage, a descending smoke bomb (by pyrotechnician Thaine Morris) was filmed. Ralston’s task here was to match the dragon’s movement to the smoke’s. The movement was then repeated via motion control, and a small light attached to the dragon provided a ‘glowing’ chest. Further embers detaching and flying off of the dragon were added to the shot by Loring Doyle.
A custom back-lit fluorescent bluescreen was used for the final battle, both for the creature and actors. “It was a very complex sequence,” Muren said. “Not many films end with ten minutes of bluescreen actors in front of created backgrounds.” The background eventually ended up to be a dark sky with ‘boiling clouds’. The background plates for the cloud formations were filmed in Hawaii.
Despite the long learning process, the advantage of go-motion is that it allows the puppet to move during the exposure of a frame — allowing natural motion blur to come about in the sequence, as opposed to stop-motion. In addition, according to Barwood, go-motion “allows the animator to store his ideas, the way you’d write them down if you were writing a script.” Robbins had unprecedented control over the animation. Tippett explained: “if the director saw the puppet was moving too slowly, he could say, ‘well, I want it to go faster.’ You’d shoot yourself if he told you that after you spent two days doing conventional animation. But this way, we just entered another value and could speed it up by almost any percentage he wanted.” Carson added: “the director was able to treat the effects shots the same way he treated the live-action. That caused us a lot of headaches and a lot of grumbling, but it’s the way most directors like to work.”
Vermithrax’s dragonfire was achieved with two flame throwers designed and built by Brian Johnson. Both used a gas under high pressure, laced with lycopodium powder; this caused the brightness and particular colour of the flames. The first, cannon-sized flame thrower was swivel-mounted; it was used in the wide shot in the Lake of Fire, and in the confrontation with Ulrich. Previously, an internal incendiary system had been installed inside the full-size dragon head, and although successfully tested, it proved unsatisfying on the actual stage. As a result, the fire was shot separately and optically composited with Vermithrax — whatever version of it — when it unleashes its fiery attack. The second flame thrower — of smaller size — was used for closer shots where the reach of the larger one was not required.
Sam Comstock supervised the compositing process. He was dissatisfied with some of the results, saying that “there was a little trouble on some of them with teeth. What looks like a matte line isn’t really. It’s the shadow of the part of the tooth that wasn’t illuminated, and that’s just the way it had to be lit. It doesn’t really light up the way a bunch of flame inside his mouth would light up. So there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about that. If you have a tooth that’s lit from one side, it’s going to be dark on one side. It would be too fastidious — even for us, I think — to try to animate in illumination for each tooth.”
When Valerian enters the Dragon’s lair to collect shed scales, she is attacked by one of Vermithrax’s babies. The baby dragons were designed by Ken Ralston. David Bunnett kickstarted the design process; he tried to find a physical appearance that would not inspire sympathy in the viewers. This fundamental guideline was due to the fact Galen was to brutally slay the creatures, and a creature for which the audience could have had affections for would have been counter-productive for the scene.
Bunnett commented on the process, saying that “the essential problem with the babies was that the baby of any species is cute and adorable.” Some designs were finalized but discarded. Bunnett continues: “we had one that looked like an eagle chick — tiny little flappy wings. You couldn’t even use it on Saturday morning television it was so cute.” Bunnett identified large eyes as a key design element to achieve empathy from the audience; thus, the dragonettes should go in the opposite direction and be endowed with small eyes. Ken Ralston then designed the final appearance, infusing “a lot of bulldog and bat in the face.” He also included ‘reverse-engineered’ details that would later grow and develop in the adult stage: a rudimentary horn on the snout, a small tail, and long arms with still undeveloped membrane.
The three babies were created as full-sized puppets by Ken Ralston, Chris Walas and David Carson, in addition to the single, featureless miniature model used for the scene where Vermithrax realizes its progeny is dead. One of them was to be decapitated and featured separated head and body parts that could be easily cut apart. Once on set, the full-sized dragonettes were operated from beneath, through holes in the floor of the cave set. The puppeteers were provided with monitors that allowed them to watch the movements of their puppets. The puppeteers had to stand to the fake blood and KY jelly (used to make the creatures’ skin glisten) dripping through the holes.
Ralston lamented a controversial scheduling choice, which put the slaughter scene before the sequence where Valerian discovers one of the babies. One of the puppets, intended to use for the latter scene, featured a blinking eye mechanism; said feature was destroyed, however, during filming of the former. Ralston recalled the unfortunate event: “one of the dumber things that happened, but just the way it happens in film — Dave Carson had rigged this thing so the eyes would blink; we had balloons all over to swell things on him and move all over the place. So what do they schedule first? The scene where Galen is tearing these creatures to pieces in the cave. The eye blink isn’t in the show at all because one of the first shots was Galen hitting this thing with the torch — which wasn’t planned — and he hit it square on top of the head, which broke the mechanism. I remember sitting under there getting my hand beat to pieces and looking at the video after he had done it. The eyes were just hanging out; the mechanisms, springs, everything was destroyed; the balloons in the throat had broken. He was even burnt, because of the torch. Then I had like three weeks for the earlier shots where Valerian goes down into the cavern and sees them.”
As a closing word, what Matthew Robbins really wanted was the monster to be the centerpiece of Dragonslayer — and the crew delivered that in spades. “I’d always conceived of Vermithrax as being the center of the drama,” he said. “In other words, he was my star. And insofar as I was able to do it, I wanted to be able to walk out on his set, pull his big head down and whisper in his ear: ‘don’t look so far right. Don’t be so close to the boy. Remember, you’re not angry; you’re just very cold.’ Or: ‘Now you’re angry’. In other words, I was directing, from my point of view, the lead actor.”
Special thanks to Chris Walas for providing great insight for this article!
For more pictures of Vermithrax and its progeny, visit the Monster Gallery.
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